US officials wonder: Is Turkey serious about blocking Finland, Sweden NATO expansion?

Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool

Will Turkey really block the applications of Sweden and Finland to NATO, as Recep Tayyip Erdogan has publicly threatened — at this precise moment, no less? Or is Erdogan merely playing with these applications as some sort of negotiating ploy? No one appears to know, including the Biden administration, the Associated Press reports this morning.

They’d better figure it out soon, because the two Scandinavian countries formally filed their applications today:

Finland and Sweden submitted letters Wednesday formally applying to join NATO, a historic moment for two countries that held fast to military nonalignment until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine upended their thinking about security.

The delivery of the letters to the alliance’s Brussels headquarters marks the start of an accession process that could take months but is expected to result in an expansion of NATO from 30 to 32 members, remaking Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture.

“I warmly welcome the requests by Finland and Sweden to join NATO,” Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a news conference in Brussels with ambassadors from each country. “You are our closest partners, and your membership in NATO would increase our shared security.” …

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan voiced skepticism last week about Sweden and Finland’s accession, but NATO officials and analysts say Turkey will fall in line. “We are determined to work through all issues and reach rapid conclusions,” Stoltenberg said Wednesday.

“Skepticism” may be an understatement. Erdogan already has a complicated relationship with NATO, but also may grasp that this is a moment he can leverage to settle a few other issues. Erdogan has acted at times as though he prefers the company of Vladimir Putin over the past few years, including his purchase of Russian anti-aircraft systems that conflict with NATO’s fighter and bomber platforms. On the other hand, Erdogan has changed his tune of late after watching Putin invade Ukraine, and he’s presently blocking any Russian surface ships from entering into the Black Sea.

That it itself serves to remind NATO of Turkey’s usefulness to their alliance, although they’d clearly prefer to be dealing with someone else in Ankara. Now Antony Blinken will have to find out whether Erdogan can be wooed, or perhaps even bought off, AP’s Matt Lee and Susan Fraser report:

Amid the contradictory signals from Ankara over the applications before they were submitted on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet his Turkish counterpart in New York in a new effort to clarify Ankara’s position after previous attempts appear to have only clouded the situation.

Underscoring the sensitivity of the delicate diplomacy required to deal with a potentially recalcitrant ally, the Biden administration seems to have taken to ignoring Erdogan saying he cannot allow the two nations to join NATO due to their alleged support for groups Turkey sees as security threats. Instead, the administration is focusing on remarks made in closed-door meetings by lower-ranking Turkish officials.

Time is of the essence, and so is discretion. If Erdogan wants to turn this into Lets Make a Deal, Blinken needs to square it away quickly and quietly lest everyone in NATO start demanding concessions as well:

Erdogan’s suggestions that he could derail Sweden’s and Finland’s membership hopes also highlight a potential weakness that Putin has tried to exploit in the past — the unwieldy nature of the consensus-run alliance where a single member can block actions supported by the other 29.

Initially seen in Washington and other NATO capitals as an easily resolved minor distraction to the process of enlarging the alliance in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Erdogan’s verbal volleys toward Finland and Sweden are attracting more concern as the two Nordic nations submitted formal applications Wednesday with the hope of joining as quickly as possible.

Even if they are overcome, objections from Turkey, which is the only one of NATO’s 30 members to have raised reservations about the expansion so far, could delay Finland’s and Sweden’s accession to the alliance for months, particularly if other nations follow suit in seeking concessions for their votes.

That’s 30 nations that could seek concessions via Article 10’s requirement for unanimous consent to add new members. That appears to be ironclad, too, meaning that the Biden administration and other European allies will have to find out quickly whether Erdogan will actually vote no, or whether he will abstain in exchange for some considerations.

Finland’s former prime minister Alexander Stubb told CNBC today that he expects Erdogan to reconsider his opposition anyway. Finland and Sweden were instrumental in bringing Turkey into the European fold, Stubb noted, and that “backroom diplomacy” on that basis will prevail:

“I’m sure this will get ironed out,” Alexander Stubb told CNBC’s Capital Connection on Wednesday, adding that both Finland and Sweden have been “avid supporters” of Turkey’s bid to join the European Union.

“I imagine that there’ll be some backroom diplomacy in the next few days … just from my experience, these types of things get sorted out,” he said. …

Stubb pointed out that it was during Finland’s EU presidency in 1999 that negotiations for Turkey’s accession to the EU accession were opened. “That was a historic moment. And I’m sure that President Erdogan will remember that,” he said.

Erdogan has made at least one of his demands public today, too. He wants dozens of people linked to the Kurdish militant group PKK extradited from Sweden to Turkey before he’ll even receive any diplomatic delegation from the two new applications, Erdogan told Turkey’s parliament today:

President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday Sweden should not expect Turkey to approve its NATO bid without returning “terrorists,” and Swedish and Finnish delegations should not come to Turkey to convince it to back their membership in the alliance. …

“NATO expansion is only meaningful for us in proportion to the respect that will be shown to our sensitivities,” he said.

Turkish state broadcaster TRT Haber said on Monday Sweden and Finland had not granted approval for the repatriation of 33 people that Turkey requested.

“So you won’t give us back terrorists but you ask us for NATO membership? NATO is an entity for security, an organization for security. Therefore, we cannot say ‘yes’ to this security organization being deprived of security,” Erdogan said.

Erdogan is still unhappy with the NATO partnership with the YPG, the Syrian Kurd militants who allied with the US to defeat ISIS. Erdogan considers the YPG and the PKK linked, and his flirtation with Putin at least correlated with NATO’s refusal to end arms shipments to the YPG. This may be payback, in other words, and it might take a denunciation of both groups by the US to convince Erdogan to back down.

Or maybe Erdogan can be bought off by other means. Stay tuned, but we can expect to be up against a bidding war with Putin for Erdogan’s affections.